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Why do Western women join the Islamic State?

Despite stories of escapees, women are joining the Islamic State at an exponential rate. An Austrian teen was reportedly killed recently when she tried to escape.

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    Demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014.
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A teenage girl whose image was used as a recruitment tool for the Islamic State was reportedly killed while trying to escape the terrorist group’s grip in Syria, according to Austrian newspapers.

Samra Kesinovic and a friend fled Vienna in April 2014, reportedly leaving a note for their families that read, "Don’t look for us. We will serve Allah and we will die for him.”

Ms. Kesinovic’s journey to IS territory is one example in a series of reports underscoring the lure of the Islamic State for women. In slowly growing global numbers, women and girls are choosing to abandon western “luxuries and freedoms” in exchange for becoming wives, mothers, and Internet recruiters for the terrorist group, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

It appears that the number of men leaving Europe and the US for Syria is “continuing at a steady plateau,” yet “the number of Western women headed to Syria has grown exponentially within the past year,” according to The Monitor, which notes that of the 4,500 foreign fighters believed to have joined IS by early 2015, about 550 of them were women.

[Women and girls] aren’t just fulfilling what they see as a religious duty. Their motives also reflect a counterculture revolt among Muslim women and girls who refuse to live as second-class citizens in the west, researchers say. For them, it is suddenly both dangerous and cool to be a particular kind of Muslim. And that attraction can be irresistible, researchers say. 

“We do see a snowball effect,” [Erin Saltman, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in London] says. “It is almost like a subculture punk movement. It is secretive. It is empowering. It is against tradition and norms. So you can see a bit of youth counterculture involved in this.”

“They are not ignorant of the brutality and violence. They have also been radicalized to really believe that there is an in-group of the pure good individuals and there is an out-group who are evil, and you dehumanize the outgroup,” Saltman says.

Despite the flow of foreign women traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State, the initial lure for many already there has worn off. The New York Times outlined the trajectory of three young Syrian women who joined IS, known locally as The Organization, when they first gained full control of Raqqa in 2014, as well as the women’s eventual escape to Turkey.

Syrians became “second class citizens” after IS took control, The Times reports. But the three women interviewed were “among the lucky: The choice to join was available to them. And each chose to barter her life, through work and marriage, to the Organization.”

In the moment, each choice seemed like the right one, a way to keep life tolerable: marrying fighters to assuage the Organization and keep their families in favor; joining the Khansaa Brigade to win some freedom of movement and an income in a city where women had been stripped of self-determination.

But every concession turned to horror before long, and the women came to deplore how they were pitted against their neighbors, part of a force tearing apart the community they loved. Only months in, widowed and abandoned and forced to marry strangers again, would they see how they were being used as temporary salves to foreign fighters whose only dedication was to violence and an unrecognizable God.

Each of them was driven to the conviction that escape was a last chance at life.

It is unclear what prompted Kesinovic to try and return home to Austria, but it was reported last October that she contacted her family and said she wanted to leave IS. The Austrian government told Fox News it could not confirm the murder and that it doesn’t comment on individual cases. 

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